Mental Illness: When Did It Become An Excuse

After an act of violence occurs, among the many reactions, there is one general consensus that inevitably floods our minds: only a crazy person would commit a crime of that capacity. 

Of course, this initial thought is not wrong. If you’re willing to open fire on a busy city street you must not be “thinking straight” and your mental health becomes a question. But where is the line drawn from excuse to valid reasoning?

It’s said that one in four people suffer from mental health issues at some point in their lives, but 25% of the population haven’t committed a violent crime. There are so many of us who manage to live with our mental illness on a daily basis and haven’t even considered doing something half as violent as the crimes we’ve seen. 

So, what does ‘mental illness’ really mean and why is it sometimes acceptable to fall back on when looking for something to blame? 

Simply put, mental illness is a subjectively complex topic that is impossible to pin down or put in a box. A mental illness is, for the most part, invisible because its symptoms don’t appear in the obvious ways the flu or broken bone would. Just the fact that a mental illness is qualified as an ‘illness’ is often put into question because it then falls under the assumption that it can be compared to a physical ailment. 

What makes mental illness an increasingly slippery topic, is that it’s constantly in flux. For example, it’s an established social “norm” by millions to worship a super being who created our entire universe years and years ago. But if another person decides that the super being they wish to worship is a tree in their backyard, chance are they’ll be seen as mentally ill. 

At the same time, a person can look in the mirror and not feel like they identify with the gender they were born as. They can feel like a completely different person on the inside, and yet not be seen as mentally ill but as a product of a social construct that affects millions of people. Sometimes, it seems like all that matters is how many people agree with your beliefs in order for them to be “normal” or acceptable. When it comes to violent crimes that shake a nation, some people will tell themselves anything to cope with a tragedy. But does that make it right?

The link between mental health and violent crimes is a needle in a haystack.  

It’d be one thing if mental illness occurred in a vacuum, but it doesn’t. It’s tangled up in everything from the person’s childhood and how they were raised, to their general health and genetics. So if you take away all of those things, the chance that their actions are a product of their mental illness is very unlikely. That being said, blaming mental illness for a crime is just the same as blaming the mask a person uses to hide their identity in a kidnapping. It’s a piece of the puzzle, but not nearly the most important aspect of it.

So why is it that mental illness can get someone off of a criminal sentencing, when another person, battling the exact same mental illness, would never find themselves in a situation even slightly similar to that? 

Perhaps the other person had a better upbringing, where they were loved unconditionally, was financially comfortable and on top of it all, suffered from a mental illness. But the person fighting the life sentence had to fight for their parents’ love, never knew where their next meal was coming from, had a history of alcoholism in their family, and on top of all that– suffered from a mental illness. 

The ‘maybes’ are endless and so are the constant changes in what mental illness is and the effects of it. What it comes down to should never just be mental illness, that is an excuse for a deeper rooted problem that deserves light. Those who aren’t criminals don’t deserve to be dragged through the mud because of the stigma of mental illness.

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